Volume 12, Issue 17 ~ April 22-28, 2004
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by Steve Carr

Chesapeake Bay Spring
There is a method to the chaos

Spring is finally here. I know this is true because a little frog just told me so. Well, actually, a whole lot of little frogs. The spring peepers, who live down in the Pendennis Pond near my house, started in with their evening chorus the other night, so I know it’s time to burn the socks and break out the shorts.

We all probably have that one special thing that lets us know winter is really over. For me, it’s the peepers. When I took out the trash a few nights ago and heard their first song of the year, it sent a shiver right up my back. It’s still pretty cold at night — close to freezing — but the little suckers can sense something in the warming of the earth, and it has drawn them out of their winter beds to sing their horny hearts out. At first, the call was a bit tentative, like they really weren’t sure it was time yet. But their even song grows louder as the temperatures climb unsteadily into the 50s and 60s. It reminds me of a tea kettle coming to boil, their symphony reaching a crescendo when the April showers bring the wetlands to life.

Spring around Chesapeake Bay is unique. There is a rhythm and order not found elsewhere on the globe. And this order is phased in across the Bay, from Cape Charles to the Susquehanna Flats. For instance, Northern Virginia is about a week ahead of Annapolis in what is blooming, meaning that 20 miles north or south can offer a whole different view of spring.

But as a general rule there is a method to the chaos of a Chesapeake Bay spring, and it goes something like this …

The First Sirens
The birds are really the first sirens of spring. Soon after Groundhog Day, they start jockeying for position. The quiet of winter is broken by the sweet songs of cardinals and song sparrows. Their monotonous sinter Chip, Chip, Chip come alive in a dazzling array of musical courtship. Next, the doves start huddling together on the overhead power lines, whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears while the resident mockingbirds take to the top of the nearest bushes or light post to proclaim their love for life by imitating every bird call on the block.

The robins used to leave the area because the winters were too harsh, but warming weather has allowed them to stay on year ’round. Come spring, they fly together in big waves, descending in a loud mob, challenging one another to territory like street toughs looking for a fight. You often see similar gangs of grackles and starlings following the robins at a safe distance. I have a theory about this. I think the robins dislodge seeds and the like from the trees they land in. The robins, of course, are not seed eaters. They are looking for a tasty worm. But their movements through the trees inadvertently bring food to the ground, where the grackles and starlings then snag an easy meal.

The Next Chorus
At about the same time the daffodils start pushing out of the earth, the squirrels start going nuts — no pun intended. Their litters have just been born and they must work overtime to feed their new arrivals. That’s why you see so much squirrel activity in the early spring. They have hungry mouths to feed back at home in their tree-top nests.

After Valentine’s Day, the wetlands kick in. Skunk cabbages start spreading their giant green leaves over the mud banks as the tearthumbs and smart weeds begin to blanket the higher ground. The ferns crowd together, providing convenient cover for the latest crop of red-backed salamanders and common water snakes. And the funky smells of springtime fill the air.

That’s about where we are right now. The weeping willows are sporting an electric green glow, and the red maples are budding electric pink. Crocuses are busting out all over the place, and everywhere you look the roadsides are alive with the bright yellow flash of forsythia. Who planted all that forsythia? You don’t even notice it’s there until springtime and then it seems like it’s everywhere.

Water’s Own Wave
While the land is coming alive each spring, we often lose track of the water. It, too, has its cycle of renewal. Subtle changes in temperatures trigger an awakening in the mud. The tiny benthic creatures, like flatworms and nematodes — the foundation of the Bay’s food chain — begin to wriggle out of their muddy beds, and the water slowly simmers into a thick, clam chowder-like soup.

The fish have been hunkered down in deep holes around the Bay, waiting dreamily for this watery transformation to begin kicking into gear. This signal of spring’s arrival draws the fish like a magnet to the headwater streams of their birth. First come the yellow perch. Most of us living near the Bay never even notice the perch run. But you can tell it’s happening when you start seeing lots of pickup trucks parked together along the edge of some road. Just south of the Annapolis Mall, near Deadman’s Curve on Defense Highway; at the Patuxent River landings along busy Route 4 near Wayson’s Corner; and at every bridge crossing throughout the Eastern Shore, the perch runs are underway and the fishermen are filling their buckets with shiny keepers. This time of year, if you take the time to stop at almost any stream, you will see the tendril egg sacks of spawning fish dripping like icicles from the stream bottoms. They wave in the water like silvery flags adrift in a current of magical rebirth.

On the Human Front
Why should we humans be any different? We too feel the pull, that pagan urge to touch the pulse of the earth and get a little crazy. St. Patty’s Day strikes, and then comes the Spring Equinox. We instinctively start shedding our clothes. There’s a bounce to our step, and we are much more in tune with our surroundings. We come out of our winter shells, like a hard crab shedding its cover and starting anew. The bike trails are packed. Home Depot is beginning to get cranked. Beach traffic returns. There’s March Madness and thoughts turn to golf. Over in Annapolis, the sidewalk cafes are back in bloom. Lots of people take to the water once again in their boats large and small. Ballfields are covered with kids of many colors. Everybody’s out and about. It’s spring.

The other night, a friend and I went on our annual spring search for the ever-elusive woodcock, a chunky, pigeon-sized bird that inhabits wetland forests and comes out right after sundown. Seeing a bird in the dark is a tricky proposition, as you might expect. That’s why I have never actually seen a woodcock in the wild. Yet I persist each spring. Like rockfish heading back upstream to spawn, I carry the hope that I will somehow succeed in my curious mission.

This year we arrived at the Sands Road Wetland Park about 30 minutes before dark. The frogs were going absolutely out of their minds. The peepers began that night’s musical offering, but were soon accompanied by green tree frogs, southern leopard frogs and the bass drum chorus of the big bullfrogs. It eventually got so loud that we couldn’t hear ourselves talk. So we just laid down on the gravel dike and listened to the world scream itself alive. It was stereo frogs and it seemed out of this world.

Lying there silently in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, in an orchestra of frogs, we must have made an odd little sight. The woodcocks suddenly joined the evening song. As they took to the sky, they made this odd buzzing call. From out of nowhere, a pair of woodcocks flew a scant few inches above our heads, not even realizing we were there. I had finally seen a woodcock, in the dark, with a bird’s eye view. You might say that we had blended right into the landscape and been swallowed up by spring.

“Rib-it! Rib-it!!”

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated April 22, 2004 @ 1:20am.